Washington Watch


Copps wants more DTV duties

The government should set public-interest obligations for digital broadcasters, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said last week. Digital-TV debate should not be limited to "industry experts and technicalities" like set-top boxes and tuner mandates, he said at the Everett C. Parker Ethics in Telecommunications Lecture, sponsored by the United Church of Christ. On the agenda should be children's and public-affairs program duties, he said. Copps urged public-interest groups to lobby the FCC aggressively as it examines media-ownership limits. "Access to telecommunications is a basic civil right."

Massing vs. Murdoch

Following press reports that the Justice Department is likely to block EchoStar's bid to buy DirecTV, media watchdog groups are gearing up to fight the next expected bidder for General Motors' satellite-TV operation: Rupert Murdoch.

The head of News Corp., who has built a global media conglomerate with news operations that are generally seen as conservative, has long been considered a pariah by liberal public-advocacy groups. He previously tried to buy DirecTV and publicly opposed the bid of EchoStar's Charlie Ergen to merge the two U.S. satellite broadcasters. "If Rupert thinks the furor over Charlie's takeover was fierce, wait until News Corp. makes a bid," said Jeff Chester, head of the Center for Digital Democracy. Some advocacy groups—Media Access Project and Consumers Union, particular-ly—endorsed the EchoStar bid in part to keep DirecTV out of News Corp.'s hands. Their fear is that News Corp., which controls major cable programming and distribution operations, will favor DirecTV at EchoStar's expense and hurt DBS competition. "We will be miserable if News Corp. gets DirecTV," said MAP President Andrew Schwartzman.

FTC oks own policy

In response to a request from the Food & Drug Administration, the FTC has released a report saying the FTC's approach to consumer protection "is fully compatible with First Amendment commercial speech protections." FDA wanted clarification after the Supreme Court earlier this year, in Thompson vs. Western States Medical Center, over-turned the FDA's ban on advertising of compounded drugs. The court said the ban was not the least restrictive method of advancing what it conceded was a compelling government interest in drawing a distinction between mass-marketed drugs and ones "compounded" by individual pharmacists. The FTC said the court's assessment of commercial-speech restric-tions comports with its own approach, which, the staff report said, "focuses on deceptive speech" and "favors requiring more information over banning information."

Secrecy vs. sunlight

A CNN report on a congress-ional committee preparing to reveal some of the possible clues to 9/11 available to the intelligence community prior to the attacks may have made government officials uncom-fortable, National Security Correspondent David Ensor told a roomful of journalists, lawyers, government officials last week, but it was no affront to national security.

Ensor, attending a Media Institute panel on unauthorized disclosure of intelligence information, said the information had been vetted by the appropriate members of the execu-tive branch, who told the reporters they had no serious problems with it. Many, he said, expected the information to leak. "We didn't put that story out without calling a lot of people," said Ensor, "and they weren't all in Congress."

Among the disclosures expected when the joint House-Senate Intelligence Committee holds hearings is that U.S. agencies knew before 9/11 that al Qaeda had considered using aircraft as weapons. The story was cited by the panel's moderator, George Mason University Professor and former CNN Washington Bureau Chief Frank Sesno, who asked: "Shouldn't the public know that?" John Bellinger III, an attorney with the National Security Council, acknowledged some officials' discomfort with the disclosures but also acknowledged cases in which information is vital for the public. Among his chief concerns: Often, disclosure of information also disclosed the intelligence community's means of acquiring it.

NAB's helping hand

The NAB Education Foundation has awarded nine scholarships to women and minorities for its Broadcast Leadership Training Program, which began Sept. 27 at Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill., and then moves to Washington. The winners: RaMona Alexander, WHBQ-TV Cordova, Tenn.; Julie Brinks, Four Seasons Broadcasting, Peoria, Ill.; Trila Bumstead, New Northwest Broadcasters, Bellevue, Wash.; Araceli DeLeon, KORO-TV Corpus Christi, Texas; Kathleen Palmer, KING-TV Seattle; Lon Rudolph, WTMJ-TV Milwaukee; Melanie Stone, WUMS(FM) Water Valley, Miss.; Jenell Trigg, Leventhal, Senter & Lerman, Washington; Joseph Watson, WSMX(AM) Winston-Salem, N.C.